Healing music

Today, a Hindustani musician came home and sang for us from 5 to 7. He is a student of the late great Bhimsen Joshi, originally from Pune and belongs to the Kirana Garana. His first rendition was in Raag Basant and he sang a beautiful Khayal on Lord Shiva. He voice was deep and loud– “Mann Kholke gaana,” he said. “Open your heart and sing.”

This is the power of chamber music. To sit in a confined space and listen to a musician is a powerful experience. A CD, however loudly you play it, can never offer the same experience.

What struck me was the casual way in which our Indian singers present their music. They sit on the floor, hum a bit and start singing. Music heals. Today’s singing session was dreamed up by a wise and insightful friend of my in-laws. They are home with me now and suddenly this friend, Leela, who knows their love of music said, “You know, I am going to have my music class in your house.”

So, the ustad came with his harmonium. Leela aunty came in her silk sari. And their English friend came just to listen. The Ustad sang Raag Basant, Raag Kalavathi and then we all sang as well. After the mehfil, I served them some upma, chutney and maddur vada, along with chai. We spoke only about Hindustani music. My in-laws were rejuvenated after this experience.

What is a gift? Sometimes it is an object; sometimes it is an experience. But sometimes, it is a music class dreamed up by a friend as a low-maintanence way of spending an evening. Here is Ustad, singing at home.

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Gourmet Magazine

Gourmet magazine has a page of my pieces here.

SHOBA NARAYAN
FOOD + COOKING
GRAINS OF TRADITION
In India, where I grew up, rice gains mystical—even mythological—proportions.
SHOBA NARAYAN 09.11.08

TRAVEL + CULTURE: Masala Klub, Taj West End, Bangalore
TAMPERING WITH TRADITION
Opening an Indian restaurant in India isn’t easy. Indians are famously possessive about their food, and chefs face severe repercussions from the Authenticity Police.

SHOBA NARAYAN 06.05.08

TRAVEL + CULTURE
MANGOES A GO-GO
It’s that time of year again, when the sweet scent of mangoes fills the air. Hungry Indians everywhere slice and slurp their way to ecstasy.
SHOBA NARAYAN 05.09.08

TRAVEL + CULTURE
KEY NOTES: OUR NATIVE VILLAGE, INDIA
This 20-room rustic hideaway bills itself as India’s “only 100 percent eco-friendly back-to-basics lifestyle resort.” In plain English, that means solar power, windmills, and composting.
SHOBA NARAYAN 11.16.07

RECIPES
PANNI POORI
JANUARY 2008

TRAVEL + CULTURE
SEARCH FOR THE CURE
The practice of herbal medicine is alive and well in rural India.
SHOBA NARAYAN 10.08.07

TRAVEL + CULTURE
KEY NOTES: SHREYAS YOGA RETREAT, INDIA
SHOBA NARAYAN 09.10.07

TRAVEL + CULTURE
AN AUTHENTIC, ALBEIT EARLY, INDIAN LUNCH
SHOBA NARAYAN 08.17.07

TRAVEL + CULTURE
DELHI JOURNAL (PART IV): RIDING IN STYLE
For some reason, well-meaning Delhi-ites always try to dissuade you from visiting Chandni Chowk.
SHOBA NARAYAN 06.21.07

TRAVEL + CULTURE
DELHI JOURNAL (PART III): A HOTEL WITH CHARACTER
The Imperial is one of those Delhi hotels that everyone loves, including my husband. But frankly, I was a little underwhelmed.

SHOBA NARAYAN 06.20.07

TRAVEL + CULTURE
DELHI JOURNAL (PART II): THE VERDICT ON VEDA
A cool, calm, and mostly Italian Diva. Everyone in Delhi has an opinion about Veda, and most of them are bad.
SHOBA NARAYAN 06.19.07

TRAVEL + CULTURE
DELHI JOURNAL (PART I): FRIED IS FINE
I am not sure that I would eat the food in Chandni Chowk, but I know Americans who have and survived.
SHOBA NARAYAN 06.18.07

TRAVEL + CULTURE
THE WORD ON THE STREET FOOD
India’s Supreme Court banned hawkers from cooking food on the street. No doubt, street-hawkers will protest about how the government is taking away their livelihood.
SHOBA NARAYAN 05.21.07
keywords culinary culture, asia, india, legislation, shoba narayan

FOOD + COOKING
DOSA DO AND DOSA DON’T
Dosas are commonly described as South Indian crepes, but the description doesn’t do them justice.
SHOBA NARAYAN 04.10.07
keywords culinary culture, asia, indian, restaurants, shoba narayan

TRAVEL + CULTURE
2006: THE YEAR IN TRAVEL
Your most memorable trip this year? The Yunnan province of China. We flew into Kunming and then drove up close to the Tibetan border.
SHOBA NARAYAN 12.28.06
keywords shoba narayan, the year in travel

MAGAZINE
MATTERS OF TASTE
They offer diners the chance to sample many dishes. But before you order that tasting menu, you might just want to read on.
SHOBA NARAYAN OCTOBER 2003
keywords shoba narayan, restaurants, danny meyer, daniel boulud, mario batali

MAGAZINE
THE GOD OF SMALL FEASTS
In this Indian family, destiny begins in the kitchen.
SHOBA NARAYAN JANUARY 2000
keywords indian, culinary culture, best of gourmet, shoba narayan

Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie

Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie

I was involved in a wonderful TV show called Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie. It is an award-winning show aired on Public Televsion stations all across the US. My job was to find and coordinate the folks who would appear several episodes. This is the second season of the show. The first season is available from the itunes store for free. Anyone interested in food should watch it.

Here are some of the episodes in which I was involved with blurbs from the show.

1. Southern India: the Spice of Life

Join us as we experience the flavors that define South Indian cuisine. We’ll visit the home of an award-winning author where she savors the enduring recipes and aromatic spices that connect her to family and an ancient past. Next, we’ll visit a tiny farming community where local farmers cultivate indigenous ragi grain without the use of pesticides. We’ll also travel along the western Malabar coast where a distinguished chef makes a local favorite using the region’s abundant seafood and coconuts. Watch the episode HERE

2. Bread: Foundation of a Meal

Bread: a simple staple at the center of almost any meal, on every table, across the globe. We’ll travel through the bustling streets of Paris to learn the secret to a beautifully baked French loaf, and then head to Italy where an Italian baker shares the legend of Tuscan bread. We’ll also spend time in the Adirondack Mountains with a baker who sees bread as a way of life. Back in the Gourmet kitchen, we’ll get a taste of a legendary recipe for savory brioche from Richard Bertinet.

Watch the episode HERE

3. Fine Fast Food

Who says fast food can’t be superb? Join us as we visit chefs around the world who are redefining the very concept of fast food. Chef David Chang of Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City turns out a spectacular meal in next to no time. In Florence, Italy, a vendor of tripe sandwiches shows us the glories of the city’s oldest form of fast food, while in Hong Kong we visit a local wonton noodle shop that has gained widespread fame for its recipe, which fans consider to be perfect. In the Gourmet kitchen, we’ll show you how to make Steak Diane in a flash, using a very unexpected ingredient.

Watch the episode HERE

4. Drinks: the golden age of spirits

Come along as we travel the globe to discover the exciting and flavorful world of spirits, looking into the slightly wacky world of mixology and meeting the cocktail artists who are raising the bar for bartenders everywhere. In the field of molecular mixology, risk-taker Tony Conigliaro is known for blending some of the most innovative cocktails in the UK. In India, we’ll watch Keralan coconut climbers make fresh liquor from the sap of a coconut tree. We’ll also visit the first and only micro-distillery in New York, which has been producing bourbon, rye, and vodka since the Prohibition era. And in the Gourmet kitchen, we’re reinventing the multi-layered Pousse-Café.

Watch the episode HERE

Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie’s Ancient Traditions Show

I drank Kallu (Toddy) for this one.

Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie

I was involved in a wonderful TV show called Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie. It is an award-winning show aired on Public Televsion stations all across the US. My job was to find and coordinate the folks who would appear several episodes. This is the second season of the show. The first season is available from the itunes store for free. Anyone interested in food should watch it.

Here are some of the episodes in which I was involved with blurbs from the show.

1. Southern India: the Spice of Life
Join us as we experience the flavors that define South Indian cuisine. We’ll visit the home of an award-winning author where she savors the enduring recipes and aromatic spices that connect her to family and an ancient past. Next, we’ll visit a tiny farming community where local farmers cultivate indigenous ragi grain without the use of pesticides. We’ll also travel along the western Malabar coast where a distinguished chef makes a local favorite using the region’s abundant seafood and coconuts. Watch the episode HERE

2. Bread: Foundation of a Meal
Bread: a simple staple at the center of almost any meal, on every table, across the globe. We’ll travel through the bustling streets of Paris to learn the secret to a beautifully baked French loaf, and then head to Italy where an Italian baker shares the legend of Tuscan bread. We’ll also spend time in the Adirondack Mountains with a baker who sees bread as a way of life. Back in the Gourmet kitchen, we’ll get a taste of a legendary recipe for savory brioche from Richard Bertinet.
Watch the episode HERE

3. Fine Fast Food
Who says fast food can’t be superb? Join us as we visit chefs around the world who are redefining the very concept of fast food. Chef David Chang of Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City turns out a spectacular meal in next to no time. In Florence, Italy, a vendor of tripe sandwiches shows us the glories of the city’s oldest form of fast food, while in Hong Kong we visit a local wonton noodle shop that has gained widespread fame for its recipe, which fans consider to be perfect. In the Gourmet kitchen, we’ll show you how to make Steak Diane in a flash, using a very unexpected ingredient.
Watch the episode HERE

4. Drinks: the golden age of spirits
Come along as we travel the globe to discover the exciting and flavorful world of spirits, looking into the slightly wacky world of mixology and meeting the cocktail artists who are raising the bar for bartenders everywhere. In the field of molecular mixology, risk-taker Tony Conigliaro is known for blending some of the most innovative cocktails in the UK. In India, we’ll watch Keralan coconut climbers make fresh liquor from the sap of a coconut tree. We’ll also visit the first and only micro-distillery in New York, which has been producing bourbon, rye, and vodka since the Prohibition era. And in the Gourmet kitchen, we’re reinventing the multi-layered Pousse-Café.
Watch the episode HERE

Grains of Tradition: Gourmet

In India, where I grew up, rice gains mystical—even mythological—proportions. It is the first food that we Indians eat and often our last. My grandfather passed away after swallowing a spool full of rice gruel, or kanji, as we call it. I honor my ancestors by offering rice balls speckled with black sesame seeds to crows (who are believed to carry the souls of the deceased). Rice coated with turmeric is sprinkled on newlyweds as a confetti-like blessing; cooked rice with a dollop of ghee is offered to gods as prasad before a meal. In my house, rice was a healing potion, used to cure everything from an upset stomach to a fever.

Pongal is a popular South Indian dish; it is also the spring harvest festival. A brimming terracotta pot of just-cooked rice is decorated with fresh turmeric and sugarcane stalks, betel leaves, and dandelion flowers. Traditionally, two kinds of pongal—sweet and savory—are served. These simple, nutritious one-pot meals are often the first recipe taught to Indian girls. My mother, fearing that I would ruin our family’s reputation by starving my husband, taught me to make pongal on the eve of my wedding.

Few things are as meditative as cooking a bubbling pot of rice. As a child, I watched my grandmother wake up at dawn and soak some rice before going for her bath. It was only after her post-bath purification that she would light the ghee-lamp and begin cooking.

My family cooked rice in a large brass pot using a method that was more akin to cooking pasta than rice. The rice was completely submerged in water and then cooked on a slow flame. My grandmother used to constantly stir it and occasionally added more water if it started sticking to the bottom of the pan. When the grains were fully bloomed (soft, not al dente), she would strain out the water using a muslin cloth. This rice kanji was used as the base for soups or diluted in water to starch cotton sarees before ironing them into crisp elegance. One trick my grandmother taught me to make the rice separate was to pour chilled water into the pot just before straining it to “surprise the grains into separating.”

TO MAKE PONGAL:
The typical ratio for pongal is one part yellow moong to two parts rice. The type of rice you use is important, as you’ll want the pongal to have a gooey, oatmeal-like texture. (Try jasmine rice, but any Japanese or Chinese sticky-rice varieties will work.)

Dry-roast the moong dal in a pan for a few minutes, then mix (by hand) the moong dal with rice in a pressure cooker. Add water generously. Rice typically requires a 1:2 ratio of rice to water, whereas pongal requires a 1:3 ratio of ingredients to water. I suggest starting with five cups of water. Add salt to taste, and cook until pongal is soft and glutinous. Add the remaining cup of water if necessary, and stir until thick.

While pongal is cooking, fry a handful of broken cashews in a dollop of ghee. Using a mortar and pestle, coarsely pound about ten black peppercorns. In a small pan, add a dollop of ghee and wait until hot. Then add cumin seeds, ground peppercorns and cashews. Add mixture to rice. (In Northern India, many families add grated carrots, beans, potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables as well.)

keywords shoba narayan, ingredients, indian, vegetarian
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Hi, I have just bought some organic ghee. It is very tasty and has no additives. You may also be interested in a food competition I am running for food bloggers to raise awareness about the importance of real food. The prize is the DVD of Our Daily Bread which documents industrial food production in Europe. The details are here http://tinurl.us/8bfdcd. You can also see my blog titled ‘Bread and organic ghee’ just alongside. Thank you.
Posted 9/12/2008,9:01:59am by Edgedance
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From: http://www.gourmet.com/food/2008/09/pongal

Tampering with Tradition: for Gourmet

Recently, I dined at Masala Klub, a new upscale Indian restaurant at the Taj West End hotel in Bangalore. I went with my mother, mostly because my husband refused to go. (“I wouldn’t eat at a restaurant that spells its name ‘klub’ if you paid me,” he said haughtily.) She likes to eat out, and has traveled abroad, but like most mothers, mine has embarrassed me to no end: In New York, for example, she sent back a fine black truffle risotto at San Domenico saying that the rice was undercooked. She is fiercely opinionated about Indian cuisine, so I was interested to see how this meal would turn out.

At Masala Klub, Mom was all smiles as she sipped the white wine. The first course was a lemongrass rasam. Uh-oh, I thought. Rasam is the holy grail of our community, the Tamil Brahmin people. It’s like chicken soup—comfort food that every home chef, mother, and grandmother takes pride in. Surprisingly, we both liked it. Then came the main course, a beautifully styled square plate. There was paneer (“too chewy,” Mom said, and I had to agree); spiced haricots verts (“undercooked,” she said, but I didn’t agree this time); and a couple of other forgettable dishes. Nothing surprised or titillated. The “wow” factor was absent.

The chef, Hemant Oberoi, a genial, hail-fellow-well-met type, came out to greet diners. He has traveled the globe and knows many of the world’s top chefs. For a while, he and I jousted, dropping names like a pair of seasoned wrestlers. “Fat Duck?” I asked. “Been there,” he said. “Met up with Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo,” he said. “What about Adrià?” I asked. “Not yet,” he replied. “Loved Per Se,” he said. “How about Alinea?” I asked. “No, but loved Charlie Trotter.” After a while, I gave up to concentrate on my masala chai ice cream.

Oberoi is clearly savvy and well-traveled. He knows food and hobnobs with the world’s best chefs. Then why, I thought, couldn’t he summon up an Indian meal to astonish Mom and me?

I realized that I already knew the answer. Opening an Indian restaurant in India isn’t easy, particularly if you’re going for haute cuisine and pan-regional tastes. Indians, like my mother, are famously possessive about their food; they have strong opinions about how each dish ought to be cooked, and they aren’t afraid to voice them. Mom, for instance, hates the whole notion of garam masala, that spice mixture beloved to North Indians. To her, it’s spice overload. She’d much rather adjust the heat and tartness of a dish judiciously, using fresh herbs like cilantro or a single green chili. My aunt, on the other hand, swears by garam masala, which she insists rounds off a dish nicely. (At family reunions, one of our main goals is to make sure that these two women never cook side by side.)

Any chef in India also faces severe repercussions from the Authenticity Police, of which my husband, Ram, is a card-carrying member. It’s not that he isn’t adventurous, but when it comes to Indian food, he becomes impossibly proprietorial: “Why mess with recipes that are thousands of years old?” is his attitude. He views all fusion food with deep suspicion; mix tamarind and tamari and he’ll practically froth at the mouth. The problem for inventive young Indian chefs working in India is that diners like Ram are not the minority. Change the tempering in a sauce or the texture of a curry and the Authenticity Police will rise in arms. Woe betides anyone who dares to experiment with a beloved dal makhni recipe or even a simple raita.

And then there’s the problem of spice. Although spicy, piquant ingredients like chiles, fenugreek, and asifoetida are fundamental to Indian food, there are regional variations in people’s tolerance to them. A dish that would be bland for a South Indian palate will have the Kashmiri sweating buckets. Modern Indian restaurants that serve pan-Indian food have to factor that in. Bhima’s is a popular restaurant in Bangalore that serves unabashedly fiery Andhra food and attracts only those that can handle the spiciness. My brother loves it. My husband, after 20 years in the U.S., would have to opt for a Greek salad.

And what about me? When I go to a place like Craft, I go with an open mind. But the minute I set foot in an Indian restaurant, I expect the food to fall within certain parameters. It has to taste “Indian.” In the end, I am no different from my mother. But I have a solution: A genius of a chef who can change the paradigm. It would confuse us to no end, rendering us too taste-struck to complain.

Changing the paradigm involves a couple of things: creativity of course, but also consistency and patience. When Suvir Saran and Floyd Cardoz, for example, push the envelope with Indian food in the United States, even adventurous eaters (such as myself) balk a bit because we feel that we own certain foods, and we cannot bear it if they are tampered with. The same is true with many other Indian diners, who have their own specific taste memory for Indian food. Avant-garde chefs have to do two things: They have to “wow” diners who are unfamiliar with the spices, introducing them to Indian food and at the other end of the spectrum, they have to coax Indians into accepting the changes they make with beloved dishes.

From: http://www.gourmet.com/travel/2008/06/masalaklub

Shreyas: Bangalore: For Gourmet

KEY NOTES: SHREYAS YOGA RETREAT, INDIA

Step into Shreyas Yoga Retreat and you could be anywhere. Outside the resort’s gate is the cacophony of India. Once inside however, all you hear are the humming of birds. The scent of a thousand herbs (lemongrass, basil, thyme and sage) permeates the air. The décor too follows the Zen Balinese aesthetic that seems to be the rage all over Asia. Dark wood, infinity pool, a profusion of flowers, minimal furnishings and the occasional understated Buddha-head or brass lamp: it could be Bali or Phuket or for that matter, Ullan Bator. Set up by an investment banker based in London, Shreyas accommodates 25 guests (many from Europe) who stay for a week or several to get yoga lessons, detox and lose weight.

WHAT’S THE BIG WOW?

The pot-holed roads and India’s choking traffic make you exhale as soon as you drive in. The peace and beauty all around, not to mention the silence make you go, “Wow.” The décor is sparse and uninspired—marble floors, white linen, flowers, woven blinds, branded furnishings– but the rooms are clean and comfortable. The names of each cottage are Sanskrit words, each with a yoga connotation. Samatvam for instance means equanimity and the short accompanying description makes a nice philosophical touch.

LIKED BEST

The scent of herbs everywhere; the bougainvillea, jasmine, lotus and frangipani flowers that seem to line every walkway; the large organic garden where guests are encouraged to work if they so desire; the cows that supply milk and dairy; the walking trails. The staff is smiling and eager, and thankfully seem intent on pampering just as much as denying. “No alcohol, Sir, but would you like chamomile tea while you watch the movie in our private screening room?” Instead of tennis, there is a ball-machine which will toss balls while you suit up with a bat, gloves and pads and play cricket: India’s national obsession. The meals are light and tasty but otherwise not particularly noteworthy. The diet is vegetarian but the food choices include both Western and Indian dishes: soups, salads, pastas but also idlis, dosas and steaming hot sambar.

LIKED LEAST

The long ride from Bangalore airport to Shreyas. The yoga-lite element in the group lessons that had to accommodate students of varying proficiency, bringing the whole group to the lowest common denominator.

WHO SHOULD STAY THERE

People who like yoga and want to pursue it in a soft-landing type environment. The yoga teachers here are gentle and tolerant of beginners so this would be a good place to improve your poses and reach the next level of proficiency. The luxurious surroundings are a nice bonus. Unlike Mysore yoga schools with their four-hour long lessons, this is not a place for hard-core advanced yogis. The slow gentle pace and the varying proficiency levels of their fellow participants would drive the advanced yogis nuts.

WOULD YOU GO BACK

Yes, but if I did, it would be for a couple of weeks to get the maximum yogic bang for the buck…and who has that kind of time these days?

Taj CC Africa: Tiger Lodges. For Gourmet

Would you pay a $1000 to spot a tiger? The Taj Group is betting you would. The India-based luxury hotel chain has tied up with CC Africa to establish 10 wilderness lodges throughout India. Four are already open.

The facilities are first-class. 12 cottages each with a private courtyard, open shower and best of all, air conditioning. 5 staff per guest ensures that requests are fulfilled almost before they are vocalized. The ethnic chic décor harks back to a time and place that is the stuff of dreams: hand-plastered mud walls, rough-hewn beam ceilings, ceramic roof tiles and furnishings in burnt umber and sienna that reflect the landscape. The welcome hut features an open kitchen with touches of rustic nostalgia. Guests can watch butter being churned and masalas being ground. Fresh lime sodas, chilled homemade cocktails and house wines are free and available on demand.

Now this is all very well and I would happily fork out wads of cash just for the never-ending supply of the fragrant Taj toiletries made using local herbs like verbena, vetiver and rose. But a $1000 a day? Per person? The Aman group’s rates are in the realm of the fantastic but even they charge four-figures per room per night. Staying at the Taj will cost a couple at least $2000 per night; plus 50% more per child if you come en famille. The Taj’s rationale is of course that they offer a world-class experience in the remotest of locales. They have to airlift food, have a helicopter on call for medical evacuation, preserve wildlife….you get the picture.

The lodge’s rhythms are familiar to wildlife enthusiasts. Wake up at dawn (or dusk); hot coffee or tea and then the game drive with a naturalist and ranger, either on a jeep or atop an elephant. These elephant safaris actually work. For some strange reason, people spot more wildlife atop an elephant than when revving through the bush in a jeep.

The food is scrumptious and so it should be for…I say it again….a thousand a pop. Meals are cooked slowly over charcoal fires or inside a mud-pit the better to coax out the aromas, my dear. Thankfully, these aren’t gimmicks. Most meals in rural India are still cooked this way and impart and wonderful flavor to the meat and vegetables, rendering them tender yet fresh and flavorful.

There is no denying it. These lodges make for a memorable vacation. It ain’t Africa but it is close. You will see hordes of elephants, spotted deer, wild guar, bison, and yes, tigers. These jungles are a bird-watcher’s paradise with thousands of colorful tropical birds that parrot and peacock for the cameras. If you like Indian food, these lodges offer a taste of India that is unique and rare.

I just wish they had included the air transfers in the price.

Mozaic Restaurant, Bali. For Gourmet

We couldn’t get reservations at Mozaic during our first visit to Bali. It was the lean season and we were just two cuoples, but they were fully booked, they told us. The next time, we made reservations right after booking our airline tickets.

Like most high-end restaurants today, Mozaic is both global and local. The décor– tropical plants, rattan-and-bamboo chairs, silk upholstry, stone sculptures of Hindu Gods– is Balinese. The culinaire and cook-shop near the foyer could masquerade for a hip boutique in the Meatpacking district. In the open kitchen, American chef-owner, Chris Salans barks orders in Balinese, swears in French and expedites in English. Trained under David Bouley and Thomas Keller, Salans sources ingredients from the region (lamb and cheese from New Zealand, Indian Ocean King prawns), visits the local market for fresh produce and uses Asian spices with the authority of a native. His technique and sensibility however is Contemporary American.

Our group opted to have the Chef’s Tasting Menu, which priced at $29 (CK) per person, was a steal. Salans attempts to surprise and awe guests by not repeating dishes even within the same table. While this can result in some harried moments in the kitchen and amidst the servers, the food made us forget we were in Bali. The tender grilled Moutard duck foie gras with roasted hazelnut emulsion and caramelized apples was all about restraint and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. On the other hand, his beef carpaccio was marinated in the classic rendang spices of Indonesia– sambal paste, shallots, cumin, coriander, curry leaves and lemongrass. For the global travellers that are his clients, this is all par for the course. Our group enjoyed his lamb tagine– New Zealand rack of lamb with toasted almonds, bean fricassee in a tagine-spiced infused demi glace. By the end of the evening, you start believing the people who call Mozaic the best restaurant in Southeast Asia.

Mama Lil’s Pickles: for Gourmet

Mama Lil’s pickles
Shoba Narayan

Ten years ago, Howard Lev, then a screenwriter, drove across the Cascade Mountains from Seattle to the Yakima Valley on a camping trip. At Kruegar Farms in Wapato, Washington, he discovered some Hungarian goathorn peppers that tasted even better than the ones his Jewish mother from Rumania had been pickling in Youngstown, Ohio for as long as he could remember. The Valley’s combination of hot days and cool nights elongated the growing season, producing firm peppers that turned from yellow to orange to red. “When you get all these colors together in a jar, it makes for a wonderful complexity of flavors because they each have a different sugar content,” says Lev.

Lev called his Mom and asked for pickle recipes. She responded by sending several, but also a package with one pepper cut exactly the way she wanted it. Lev started making small batches of pickled peppers and sending them along with his scripts. “Good script, but really great pickles,” was the response. Soon, Lev got the message and Mama Lil’s Pickles was born.

Lev’s production season runs 8 weeks when the peppers are ripe. He cuts them by hand, takes the seeds out, dunks them in a pickling brine of salt and vinegar for a day, then drains the vinegar out so that it doesn’t block the oils and spices from infusing the peppers. Unlike commercial pickle makers, Lev cold-packs his pickles, which means that he heats his peppers after they are in a jar. He fills each bottle with a colorful mix of pickled peppers, adds oregano, garlic and other spices, pours in a mix of extra virgin olive oil and expeller pressed canola oil. He sends the jars through a steam oven, heating each one just enough so that nothing grows in them, yet making sure that the peppers don’t get overcooked and turn into mush. “The transfer of flavors between the pickled peppers, garlic, oregano, and the oil is what gives the flavor,” he says.

Lev also makes a hotter version, which he calls, “Mama Lil’s Kickbutt Peppers.” His other products include pickled vegetables like asparagus and beans, as well as “Peppalilli”, a variation of the classic chow-chow recipe that uses peppers, onions, cucumbers and sweet mustard sauce. “When I did samplings of my Peppalilli at grocery stores, 80-year-old women would come up to me and say, “I haven’t eaten this since the time my grandmother made them.’”

I first tasted Mama Lil’s pickles at a Seattle grocery store. The peppers were crisp and fresh, and the flavor bloomed slowly in my mouth as I chewed. Soon, I was addicted, and put the peppers on sandwiches, pizzas, toast, pasta, and in fact, everything I ate. I used the flavored oil as a marinade and salad dressing.

Lev sells directly to specialty shops in Seattle and to many online grocery stores such as chefshop.com. Mama Lil’s pickles can be mail-ordered directly from Lev by calling (206) 322-8824, or emailing mamalils@zipcon.net

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